A Guide to Fishing Montana's Small Streams
Montana is famous for some of its legendary larger rivers like the Madison, Yellowstone, Missouri and Bighorn. These larger fisheries grace the covers of many magazines and are a household name in fly fishing families worldwide. While these blue ribbon rivers certainly deserve the attention they receive, some of Montana’s best fishing can often occur on lightly fished smaller waters. While the size of the trout might not be as big as some of the more well-known rivers, you can often have smaller waters all to yourself. If tying on a dry fly first thing in the morning and not taking it off until the day is over is your idea of a perfect day of fishing, fishing a small stream will be the perfect choice. If you happen to be an angler not familiar to fishing smaller streams or if you are on a trip far away from home, finding a quality stream might be a challenge, but it shouldn’t be.
Here are a few tips for exploring the hundreds of off the beaten path smaller streams across Montana:
1. Pay attention to topography
Generally speaking quality trout will not live in areas of the streams that are extremely steep. The easiest way to find this out is to look at a map and if the topographic lines are very close together, the stream in that area will be steep. Don’t completely cross that stream off, but instead find an area that has lines that are farther apart. Some streams will have beautiful meadows that are surrounded by steeper sections. A little hike might expose a hidden gem that few people get to see.
2. Find public access
Luckily Montana has hundreds and thousands of acres of public land. The headwaters of many legendary rivers originate as in National Forest lands in the mountains. Most locals won’t readily share their favorite small stream locations so it can pay to pick up a map and look for smaller streams in the National Forests. They will all hold fish and if the gradient isn’t too steep it can produce some nice fishing. Montana also allows the fishing on private lands as long as anglers access it from a public location like a bridge crossing or state land as long as you are within the high water mark.
3. Fly patterns
One of the best parts about small mountain streams is the wide variety of patterns that will work for uneducated trout. Most trout in these streams are very responsive to anything that looks buggy. One of the first and maybe most important things to consider regarding fly patterns are being able to see the fly through some of the faster runs. It is a good idea to tie some flies with a brightly colored post on parachute style flies or wings on humpies or stonefly/grasshopper type flies such as orange or bright green and black even works well. The main objective is to have a color that has good contrast to the white water that you will most likely experience. In some of the smoother sections or in meadow areas, terrestrial type flies really shine. Nymphs are usually not needed, but they can be tied off the back of a dry. A one to two foot section of tippet off the back of the dry is all that is needed. Any attracter style nymph will work such as pheasant tails or hares ears.
There is no need to bring anything heavier than a 4 weight, a 2 or 3 weight is usually more ideal. The rod length usually varies; if the stream is free of streamside vegetation a standard nine foot rod will work will help clear the line over tall grass on your back cast. For streams with timber lined banks the grass tends to be lower and a shorter 7 to 7.5 foot rod will help sneak your line under the limbs of the overhanging canopy.
This is a guest post written by Brian McGeehan.
Brian is the owner and outfitter of Montana Angler Fly Fishing based in Bozeman, Montana. You can contact him directly with further questions.
All photos belong to Brian.